Screen Printing VS. Digital Printing – What’s the Difference?

For years t-shirt printers have used screen printing as their preferred method for printing designs onto t-shirts. The only other alternative used to be iron-on designs or transfers, which was a very different type of product. Many people remember the transfers from the late 1970s and early 80s as thick rubbery designs that would sometimes crack or peel. Another problem with iron-on was the fact that it was time consuming to do multiple t-shirts. Screen printing was a much more efficient process, allowing t-shirt printers to do multiple t-shirts faster while creating a higher quality shirt. Screen printing had long become the standard in the t-shirt printing industry. The standard until digital printing starts to evolve.

As the computer gained popularity in society, so did graphic design. The ability to design unique graphics on computers has become one of the most sought out skills in today’s job market. More and more people are using their computers to create unique t-shirt designs. Still, computer generated designs were still printed on shirts using the screen process until the rise of digital printing. The digital process is the new era of t-shirt printing, allowing a printer to print designs from a computer directly onto a t-shirt. Digital printing is the 21st century alternative to screen printing.

Faster and Cheaper

Printing with screens is still widely used by t-shirt printing companies and is still a quality process, but the digital process has quickly become the chief alternative for small runs. The set up for digital is much easier and cost effective. In the screen process one has to set up a screen for each color the design takes, which means that the more complex the design is the more screens the printer is going to need. This increases the manual labor which is going to increase cost. When a screen printer prices their t-shirts, they always charge more for more colors. With digital t-shirts there are unlimited colors and no screens, just one flat fee per t-shirt. Instead of setting up all the screens beforehand, the only set up digital requires is a pre-treatment of the t-shirt, which gives the shirt a solid base and prevents the digitally printed ink from smearing. This is a much less time consuming pre-printing process.

More Control

Digital printing offers much more control during the printing process than screen printing. Digital printing gives a printer the option of auto-matching ink. Instead of mixing inks, the screen printing way, ink matching allows the digital printer to print any color from the original design directly onto the t-shirt. The digital ink process makes it easier to print multi-colored designs digitally on t-shirts.

For a large order of t-shirts screen printing is still going to be the main option most t-shirt printers choose. The only downside of digital printing is the manufacturer needs multiple printers in order to speed up the printing process. Screen printing can print more shirts at a time, making them ideal for large orders. This is the main reason why digital printing hasn’t completely taken over the market. Some day most t-shirt printers may only do digital printing if printers become large enough and are able to handle bigger orders. Until then screen printing and digital printing will continue to work together. It will be up to the printer to decide what process is more efficient for each individual order.

However, digital printing is making stride. A decade ago digital printers were rare, now most t-shirt companies have a digital printer and use it for all single t-shirt orders.